Posted by Susana Costa Amaral, PhD Candidate, Department of Spanish and Portuguese at NYU
“Eu sou porque nós somos” was Marielle Franco’s campaign slogan when she ran for office in 2016. The Brazilian congresswoman from Favela da Maré was elected with more than 40,000 votes for Rio de Janeiro’s Legislative Assembly. Black, lesbian, a single mother, she was a human rights activist who constantly criticized and denounced police abuse and civil rights violations, particularly when it occurred in the most vulnerable areas of the city. Her political platform was based on the promise to give visibility to black and peripheral minorities of Rio de Janeiro.
On March 14, 2018, Marielle Franco was executed along with her driver, Anderson Gomes, while leaving a public event held at Casa das Pretas (Black Women’s House), a space created to host the voices of black women from the favelas. After a controversial investigation that lasted over a year, two former police officers were arrested and accused of killing Franco, shedding light on Rio de Janeiro’s parallel state ruled by mílicias – paramilitary gangs led by Rio’s police force. Acting as an almost lateral power, the milícias operate wherever there is a vacuum or omission of the state. And for the last two decades, these groups have grown more powerful and their areas of influence have spread throughout the “marvelous city,” under the blind eye of Rio’s governors, of which five are or have been imprisoned sometime just in the past three years.
Despite the arrests, the question “Who killed Marielle Franco?” still haunts the streets of the city. It is unknown who ordered Marielle’s murder, as the two police officers accused of carrying out the action used to operate a “crime office,” responsible for executing commissioned killings.
Marielle Franco’s execution and its relation to the milícias and Rio de Janeiro’s political class suggests that violence is deeply rooted in the city’s political landscape. During my field research, I was able to interview the deputies Mônica Francisco and Dani Monteiro, two of Marielle’s former cabinet secretaries, now recently elected to the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the activist Mônica Benício, Marielle’s widow. The three women insisted that the connections between Marielle’s execution and the fact that this crime has not been solved after more than a year, are a clear threat to Brazil’s democracy. They also highlighted how Marielle’s case can be read as part of a long violent thread in Brazilian history.
After Mônica Francisco’s interview, I went to a protest in the city center. Hundreds of people took the streets in more than 80 cities in Brazil, including in Rio de Janeiro, against cuts to the public education budget and other measures by President Jair Bolsonaro’s government. In the middle of the crowd, among flags and protest signs, Marielle Franco’s face stood out, confirming what the three women had told me during our interviews: Marielle Franco had become a symbol of protest, an image that signals an encruzilhada in the crossroads of gender, racial and necropolitical struggles.
“Marielle Presente!” Through the mobilization of a performative and plural assembly of anonymous living bodies, Marielle emerges in language as a dead body that demands accountability, an intelligible life that keeps surviving in spite of all. However, Marielle’s dead body is not just any body. This is a body that demands to be named. The necessity of naming this body operates to build solidarity since it is precisely Marielle’s Black, woman, single-mother, lesbian, poor and “favelado” body that invests her figure with a sign of precariousness. Her body gives visibility to the most vulnerable sections of the population, allowing for her mourning to take the form of a political assembly while generating critical alliances.
On my last day in Rio, I had a report to write and a feeling of desassossego. I decided to go to the intersection where Marielle Franco was killed. I saw the graffiti, the stencils, the question that never stopped being asked: Who killed Marielle Franco? I stepped into a street market around the corner from the intersection and bought a candle. I lit the candle and started to walk. Slow, careful steps, always onwards. I wanted to protect the flame, keep it from going out. My body would then bend to shield it from the wind, the pedestrians, the bicycles, and even from an evangelical pastor, who left the service and raised his arms behind me in a ritual of purging. Every time the flame went out, I would light it again, and again, and again. When all the wax had melted down, I was still left with a light that kept shining the way…in spite of it all.